What were dahlias called in Mexico and Central America, their native habitat in the sixteen hundreds before their seeds were shipped to Spain? Surely the locals there had a name for them. It piqued my interest. Most everyone knows the early dahlias were later, named after Andreas Dahl.
“Acocotli,” and “Chichipatli” is what the plants were referred to back in the current area of Sierra de Ajusco Range of Mexico. Many dahlia seedlings today still revert back towards the similar single form of Acocotli and Chichipatli.
In looking up the Nahuatl (Aztec) word “Acocotli” it defines it as “an herb that is like a condiment or has medicinal value, useful for getting the sap from magueyes.” Magueyes refers to agaves.
Francisco Fernandez took a seven year expedition studying the flowers of Mexico and an botanical illustrator accompanied him, Francisco Dominguez, who illustrated many of the native flowers they found.
Francisco recorded the following in 1750 about the first Acocotli he encountered:
“This plant, which the Quauhnahuascenses call ACOCOTLI and the Tepozthlanenses call CHICHIPATLI, is soft tissued, it’s leaves similar to Mountain Nard, but cut, some being fine cut, bearing at the ends of the stalks, which are nine inch, slender and rounded, stellate flowers, pale to reddening, with double roots of the size of acorns, ending in ever so many fibers, on the outside black, within white. This seems to belong to the order of Ligusticum. It is found in the mountains of the Quauhnahuascenses. In taste the root is smelly, bitter, sharp; it is hot and dry in the third degree, one once eaten relieves stomach ache, helps windiness of the stomach, provokes urine, brings out sweat, drives out chill, strengthens a weak stomach against chill, resists the chill, opens obstructions, reduces tumors.”
It sounds as if he is describing a miracle plant. All of this attributed to the early dahlias. Amazing.
Many years later the first garden, double-form was bred in 1813 by C. Arentz of the Netherlands. I can only imagine the excitement when that flower opened and it was double. Jubilation. That was just the beginning as he bred more than seventy two new dahlias after that. I have yet to find what he named that first double dahlia flower. It surely had a name. It is recorded the first doubles were purple colored. C. Arentz was credited with breeding the first all white double dahlia as well, around 1821.
In 1828 these new, garden dahlias reportly sold anywhere from two dollars and fifty cents up to twenty five dollars. (All the rage then and now, one hundred ninety one years later.) Still it’s about the same prices today.
A bicolored dahlia, the first to show up and was named, “Levick’s Incomparable.” Other early Dahlia names were a little more complicated like, “Georgina variabilis var. sphaerocephala.”
Stanford University states the “fancy” dahlias fell out of favor by 1862 only to be revived by cactus formed dahlias. Flower fashions are unpredictable.
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine began publishing in 1787 and many flowering dahlia plants were first published and illustrated on their pages. William Curtis founded the journal and it was cherished by botanists and gardeners alike. The detailed, colored-botanical plates are stunning. Glasgow University has valuable information about Curtis and also the botanical artists that colored it’s pages.
Photo courtesy of Glasgow University
Recently I ran into the sale of the first twenty issues of Curtis’s Botanical magazine for One thousand five-hundred dollars. I wondered how many dahlias might be illustrated in those pages? Think of all of the dahlias I could purchase with that money.
Until tomorrow…let Acocotli roll off of your tongue a few times. The “t” is silent and “tl” is pronounced like a double letter “L.”